Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#83, April 18, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Tune in to almost any talk radio show, and sooner or later you'll hear belligerent remarks about rights - hey, John Rocker and Jesse Ventura had a perfect right to insult immigrants and blacks and religious people! The baseball announcer who said blacks lacked the capabilities for management had a Constitutional right to say that; he shouldn't have been fired for it!

It seems to me this reveals a basic misunderstanding of what the first amendment guarantees us. It simply says: "Congress shall make no law" infringing that right. It does NOT say people can say anything they want, any time, any place, without penalty. Society creates and enforces other rules about what we can and cannot say.

One such code is good manners, which tell us to treat others with respect, and refrain from wantonly insulting people -- especially when they've done nothing to provoke the insult except exist. Jesse Ventura made an intellectually indefensible, sweeping generalization about ALL religious people, and got in trouble for it.

As he should have. His unprovoked attack not only violated good manners; it was stupid. A governor needs to work with and for all the citizens of the state, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnic background, and citizens need to believe their governor will treat them fairly and impartially. The remarks Ventura made in the Playboy interview ruptured that faith. When he not only refused to apologize, but claimed his rudeness was a virtue, his popularity ratings, and his effectiveness in governing, went way down.

We don't really have perfect freedom to say everything we think at work, either. Most of us wouldn't tell our bosses that they're jerks unless we had another job lined up.

If our teammates -- our partners at work -- are black or Hispanic, as John Rocker's are, ugly racial remarks affect our team's ability to work together. If we make them, management has a perfect right to suspend us, fire us, or force us to apologize.

We can't afford to insult our customers, either. John Rocker is part of a sport that's been losing minority fans, and major league baseball has been trying to lure them back. John Rocker's racial insults, which do nothing to make minorities feel welcome in the baseball parks, sabotage those efforts.

We have a right to THINK whatever we want, and our employers have no right to change our beliefs, but what we SAY is public, and subject to scrutiny. If public servants make insulting remarks about races or religions, they offend people whose taxes pay their salaries, and raise doubts about the fairness of government itself. The agency they work for has the right to discipline them, not for the racist beliefs, but for expressing them publicly.

There is also symbolic expression. Burning the flag is a symbolic statement of contempt for the government (and a more shocking one than Jay Leno's nightly routine). Flying the Confederate flag over the capitol which is supposed to represent ALL South Carolina citizens is a symbolic statement that the state government cares nothing about the opinion of 40% of its population.

The state has a right to say that. And people who don't like it are free to express their opinion by marching, rallying, and boycotting the state.

Clothes are also symbolic speech. A woman may express herself with a T-shirt proclaiming, "I'm with stupid." (Her boyfriend may express himself by finding a more appreciative woman.)

Working alone at my computer, I wear comfortable sweats; when presenting a speech, I wear a suit (I'm not a lady, but I play one on TV). Wearing conventional business clothes is how you show you're there to focus on the job. Women who wear provocative clothing, or men who wear scruffy shirts and jeans, send the message that they're not serious about their work, and their bosses may properly order them to return in appropriate clothing or not at all.

The Constitution gives us the right to say any number of things that we have the sense and good manners to keep to ourselves. And a good thing, too, because we need to get along.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing